Bill to block state park privatization moving in House & Senate

Republican-controlled committees of both the House and Senate have approved a Democrat-sponsored bill that would block new privatization efforts at Tennessee state parks.

Key sentence in the bill (SB1110/HB1208), sponsored by House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, and Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis:

“The management, operation, and preservation of state parks, including the management, operation, and preservation of any buildings, facilities, structures, or improvements upon state park property must not be the subject of any private contract or otherwise outsourced to any private company or individual.”

It doesn’t apply to contracts in place before July 1, 2017. But Fitzhugh says that existing contracts coming up for renewal after that date could be subject to the prohibition when they expire and come up for renewal.

In the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Kyle’s bill was approved quickly Monday without discussion  – Chairman Steve Southerland seconded the motion for passage — on a vote of 7-0-1. Sen. Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, abstained.

On Wednesday, the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill on voice vote with no apparent opposition after a short discussion, including Fitzhugh declaring privatization of parks “is something the people do not want” and there is a danger of “overpricing” park visits under current plans so that average Tennesseans cannot afford them “when we try to make a profit out of state parks.”

At Fall Creek Falls State Park, current plans call for demolishing the present Inn, building a new one at a state cost of $22 million, then turning operations over to a private company with anticipation that the average cost of a room would be $151 per night, compared to $75 at the existing Inn.

Near unanimous Republican support for a Democrat-sponsored bill even remotely controversial is an oddity. But it remains to be seen whether the committee votes are a symbolic gesture that will be scuttled later in the process, a genuine defiance of the governor’s plans or something in between.

Note: See also Sam Stockard’s report following Senate committee approval, but prior to the House sub’s vote. The article notes that current Haslam administration plans call for getting a contract signed for the Fall Creek Falls private operations in May, which could mean the deal gets included in the grandfather clause for contracts in place by July 1.

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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